Monday, August 8, 2011

Of Quarks and Ships and Shimmerblades...

I've ranted so much recently about the use and explanation of advanced technology in the sci-fi world, that I decided I'd better hold my own misdemeanors up to the light.

So here is a brief rundown of some of the technology that appears in Ghosts of Innocence.

Have I followed or broken my own rules? Let the bloggers decide.

Faster than light travel

Exhibit A, M'Lud: The "hopper" drive moves a ship from point to point in space by jumping between higher-dimensional folds in visible space-time, effectively taking a short cut from A to B. Individual hops in open space are typically tens or hundreds of miles long, and the drive may make a million hops a second, giving superlight speed.

The charge: Significant exposition at one point on how pushing the drive too far can result in cumulative damage to ship and crew, akin to radiation exposure.

Also a suspiciously techie turn of phrase later on: The heat of the sun posed no threat, but the invisible grasp of its gravity tugged on the particles of ship and crew as they flung themselves across a fractal labyrinth of inter-dimensional chasms.

The defence: At no point is anything about the drive mechanism explained in any kind of detail. Risks are hinted at in the reactions of the crew at various points, and illustrated when a ship they pursue explodes.

The one piece of exposition is delivered as dialogue, when a very ill Shayla talks to an engineer on board a ship racing to beat the bad guys. The engineer explains why Shayla and other crew members are getting sick, but nothing about how the drive works. This sickness is a crucial plot point, as they are forced to stop for medical aid which leads into the next phase of the chase.

On the offending sentence I offer no defence. I just enjoyed writing it.

Materials, drugs, biotech


Nicodyne: A stimulant, widely used to keep people going around the clock. Trylex: A drug which robs the victim of all voluntary movement and unable to resist the suggestion of external commands. Animastin: A memory-erasing drug. Nacrolin: A nerve poison which paralyses and kills the victim in hours or days of agony, depending on the dose.

Refractory materials: Capable of withstanding a high-grade plasma.

Chemical recognition signals: Examples like the "nose" mentioned in an earlier post.

Subcutaneous implants: Biotech disguise that allows a person to voluntarily change appearance.

Mitigating pleas: None of these are explained at all in the book. The effects are illustrated as they occur. See earlier post for an example.



Miscellaneous big guns: Quark bomb, pulse bomb, plasma cannon, particle beams.

Hand held weapons: Particle beams, needle guns, and the shimmerblade - a kind of knife with extraordinary cutting power.

The charges: Gratuitous inclusion of advanced technology, and inclusion of techie jargon like "quark" and "plasma".

Also one-line description of the shimmerblade which borders on the jargonistic: Her pocket knife was another matter entirely. Looking perfectly commonplace, it was a shimmerblade like Finn's. When activated, the vibrating crystalline edge could shear effortlessly through anything short of military grade vehicle armor.

The defence: Here I suspect I'm on shakier ground, but in this spacefaring society I decided I needed advanced weaponry to go with their level of technology.

Quark bombs were a simple extrapolation beyond the release of chemical energy (conventional explosives) and nuclear energy. They are not described nor seen in action, just referred to in hushed tones. They are touchy buggers and impractical to deploy in warfare, but make a potent terrorist threat.

Plasma beams are seen, big time. I needed something futuristic that could plausibly level a city in a single blast.

Most of the other weapons are commonplace sci-fi staples that really needed no introductions. The shimmerblade, I decided, was different enough to warrant something to justify its potency, having just seen it behead two people with minimal effort.

In no case do I try to explain the technology behind the weapons, but I'll accede to the charge of gratuitous jargon-dropping if the court so sees fit.


Artificial gravity, handheld computers in the form of flexible scrolls and notepads operated by drawing and writing, limited artificial intelligence in surveillance systems and ships' control and battle systems.

These are all seen as part of the everyday fabric of life. No explanations offered.

Summing up

Throughout the book, I've tried to adhere to some simple principles:
  • Showing technology in use, showing its effects in the world and on the characters.
  • Avoiding any kind of lecturing or explanations of underlying function.
  • Introducing additional detail only where essential to the plot or to the reader's understanding of events, and trying to do so as naturally as possible.
  • Giving items mundane names, or names that could be trademarks (especially the drugs), and steering away from anything sounding too geeky. In other words, using terms that you could envisage being used in everyday conversation.

I hereby throw myself on the mercy of the court.


  1. I am always delighted to meet interesting bloggers. And if they also have cats, dogs and other animals around, I can almost consider them my friends :). Lovely place you have here, it's gonna be a pleasure discovering you. Kisses.

  2. All of these sound plausible to me, Botanist, but I don't have a scientific bone in my body. The last time i had anything to do with science I was sent to the principal's office for lighting my bunson burner with the cigarette lighter I should not have had in my pocket. It was awkward - just led to the discovery of the cigarettes.

    I tend to go low tech, or just not explain why these things work. They work, that is all. After all, I have no idea how most current technology works. I'm a consumer, not an engineer. And so are my characters, luckily!

  3. 'Foreman of the jury. Have you reached a verdict?'

    'Yes. M'Lud.'

    'What say you on the charge of over-complicating, over-explaining, and generally baffling the reader?'

    'Not guilty, M'Lud.'

    Lots of cheering and back-slapping.

    'Botanist, you are free to go. But before you leave could you get me to Vega in time for the Superbowl Universe final?'

  4. You stole my would-be comment when you said, "Showing technology in use, showing its effects in the world and on the characters." This is the fat in a sci-fi story. Don't explain the schematics. Show it in action! I don't think you break this rule in Ghosts. I've never felt overwhelmed by tech speak. If anything, I usually want more!


  5. Botanist, our time difference always makes it so that I don't get to your post till the following day. Regardless, that was totally awesome. I want to hop in a hopper immediately. I love your techy lingo...wish I could match it, but at least I can understand it. Fortunately for me, although my Fantasy writing does involve a bit of Sci-Fi, it's mostly in the form of alien life and wormholes...heavier on the fantasy stuff. Also, Subcutaneous implants rock! :) You are the navigator.

  6. Didn't we agree (he said, elbowing his way into the crowd of bewigged judges) that first, always, must be the narrative.
    Even Einstein would have preferred an inventive but, as yet, unknown technology to drive the story along rather than exact known, proven and accepted science (he said dragging Einstein onside, even though he can't argue with me!).
    Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

  7. Okay, my brain twisted into a bunch of mush. I love Star Trek but even though I'm in love with chemistry, I still get cross-eyed when I read technical things--especially in fiction books. Lol... Call me strange.

    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

  8. Welcome to The Bald Patch, Unikorna. Glad to meet another animal lover.

    Jen, I love science but I get frustrated with overly-complicated tech like PCs so I strongly empathise with folks who don't like getting blasted with lots of techno-babble.

    Thank you Ellie, I'm relieved to walk away a free man. Next starhopper for Vega departs in 15,932 years. That should get you there in plenty of time.

    Pam, I truly value your critiques, so to hear an element is hitting the target means a lot to me.

    Laila, I think you'd have different thoughts about subcutaneous implants if you heard what Shayla had to go through to get them.

    Bazza... *consults Einstein via trans-dimensional time warp* on!

    Hello Strange, I mean, Elizabeth! A lot of people glaze over when faced with tech talk, which I guess is why they don't read sci fi. But they'll happily watch Trek and Star Wars and Avatar because they can see things in action and not get lectured. Ideally, I'd like to achieve the same in the written word.

  9. Those pics are yours!!!? Awesome! Will check them out during by break today. :)

  10. You know your art. Here's two thumbs up. I think it all sounds solid and more than realistic. (Is that possible?) When will your book be available?

  11. Botanist, I checked out all your pictures...they were are way talented. :)

  12. Thanks Laila, I've been drawing & painting as long as I can remember. Writing is a new venture for me.

    Crystal, I'm trying to polish the book up to try the traditional print route. For some reason I'd like to be able to see it on bookshelves if possible. So the answer is: not for a long time I'm afraid :D


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